YAvengers Twitter Chat

Greetings Midgardians, fellow writers. As you have no doubt surmised, the month of January has been a focus on Genre. My fellow Avengers -- and my brother -- have done a wonderful job of summarizing the various popular genres, and discussing those moments when a story may not fit.

I, however, have other plans.

You see, as this month has progressed I have found it... increasingly difficult to know what to cover on this topic, aside from what has already been covered. Therefore, I turn to you, dear writers.

I wish to hear your questions on this topic, and possibly any related to it. I, and any of my fellows who are able to be there, will have a YAvengers Twitter Chat. And you are invited.

This Friday, January 30th, from 7-8 pm Pacific Time (that's 10-11 Eastern) I invite you to come to the #YAvengers hashtag and tweet us your questions.

If there is anything we have not covered this month you'd like to ask about, or if you have questions you'd like us to address in future months, we would love to hear.

I may end up the only YAvenger there, but I shall do my best to entertain and educate.

Hoping to see you there,




The #YAvengers Twitter Chat went extremely well! Natasha and I were present to ask questions and discuss Genre in YA Literature, as well as answer general writing questions. Those who came were insightful and inquisitive. Thank you to those who participated! We would love to have another next month on the topic of STORY STRUCTURE to go along with the Team's posts for February. Keep your eyes on this blog for the day and time.


It's a Mystery

Mysteries are everywhere.

They are one of the oldest types of stories.  Who stole my lunch? asked the Neanderthal.  Judging from the footprint in my favorite mud patch, I'm guessing it was Urm-Ough.  Although Yert-Ragr has very similar feet...

Okay, so that's a dramatization.  But mythologies are peppered with heroes who travel great distances to search for things: the answer to his great question, the deity who killed her family, or the one object that will let the owner live forever.  You can boil almost any story down to a question, if you want.

But even if you keep mysteries to their definition-- start with a question, answer it by the end of the story-- mysteries are everywhere.  They are probably the most prevalent style of subplot in fiction.  In the mystery genre, a story is basically six or seven mysteries twined together.  In a thriller, you have one mystery for half (who did it and how?) and the second half is dedicated to stopping bad things.  In everything else, mysteries come and go as the author wishes.  What does the Big Stick of Evil do, in an epic fantasy?  How did the enemy hack into our weapon systems, in science fiction?  Who is this mysterious woman from my boyfriend's past, in a romance?  No story survives completely free of a mystery.

So how do you write a mystery plot line?  Stick with the definition: start the story asking a question, finish by answering it.

But there's so much more to it than that, or else a mystery would last as long as a knock-knock joke.  Mysteries have more than that to draw them out.  Red herrings, false assumptions, sheer volume of clues-- expanding a mystery comes down to muddying the waters.

The easiest, most obvious way to build a mystery is to add clues.  Clues, clues, clues— make the puzzle as complicated as possible so that even when the characters get the edge pieces down, the middle takes time.  Except... a confusing mystery is, well, confusing.  When it's finally explained, it might take more energy to understand than it ever took to find all the clues.  If the audience can't understand it, they're going to lose interest.

So keep it simple.  But how do you make it both complicated enough to take an entire novel to solve, and simple enough to be understandable once all the clues are laid bare?  Introduce the clues in reverse.

Hello, I am Captain _____.  Fill in the blank.  It's easy to figure out when you see it all in its correct order.  But how about this: Fill in the blank.  ______ the enslave to wants Loki.  Harder at first glance, right?  How about scrambling up the clues?  Fill in the blank.  ______ name Stark's is middle Tony.  It's much harder to answer a question when the hints come in reverse, or scrambled.  (This is the entire premise of that one television contest thingy with the mysterious theme song.  Google says that's Jeopardy.)

So, figure out the mystery, get a couple of clues together, and line them up for the characters to find in reverse.  But even that could be guessed in a matter of minutes, with some good thought.  You need to confuse a little more.

Red herrings are intimidating, but do not fear.  They serve to distract from the real prey by leading the bloodhounds down the wrong trail.  Despite seeming like big, fancy, etymologically complicated gimmicks, red herrings are simple.  They're just another mystery.

Seriously.  A red herring distracts by leading down a wrong trail-- all that means is there's another trail out there, which means another mystery.  All you have to do is confuse the clue for one mystery with the clue for another.

Imagine someone steals my shield one day.  Big, round, and shiny, you'd think I couldn't misplace it, but it's gone.  In its place are the lonely crumbs of chocolate cake.  I only left the shield behind for two hours between three and five, and only one person I know eats cake during that time.  Thor must have taken it.

On the contrary, Thor was just coming to ask me what Tony was whistling so tunelessly, and put his cake down for a moment as he admired my current whittling project.  The shield was already gone by the time he arrived.

Who stole my shield?  That's mystery 1.  Why are there chocolate crumbs there?  That's mystery 2, and that one is easily solved-- but it's already served to throw me off track.  That's a red herring, thanks to Thor.

The detective can assume a red herring is a clue to the main mystery, but they can also misunderstand real clues.  Only Sherlock Holmes has ever completely resisted guessing at the mystery's solution before it's completely clear.  What if Thor had been in my room, fighting off the shield thief with his chocolate cake?  While that's certainly a clue to who might be in my room, I can still leap to the conclusion that Thor took my shield.  While a clue might be really important to mystery 1, it can also be misunderstood by wanton theorizing.

The bigger you want your mystery to be, the more of a part you want it to play, the more mysteries you're going to have to introduce.  This really isn't as bad as it sounds.  You just withhold information from the reader for a little bit longer.  Tie six or seven mystery plots together, and you have a mystery novel.  Twine a couple around a grander plot line, and you have a nice accent for any type of story.  Confuse as much as possible until the resolution; mix up and reverse your clues, add more mysteries for red herrings, and theorize wantonly when possible.  All these things will help your mystery thrive, wherever it happens to appear.

~Captain America

P.S.  Barton probably stole the shield.  It makes a really good target.

Transcending Genre: When It Doesn’t Fit In A box

Genre. It’s a tricky business. Important, but super tricky, because every now and again you find yourself with a plot that doesn’t quite slide nicely into one of those boxes.

make it bigger

If it doesn’t fit in the box, make the box bigger. Redesign the box.
Sell it back to the people who made it in the first place. EVERYBODY WINS.

For example (to use one of Pepper’s novels), what do you with a novel where the characters are college students but they’re also knights? The setting plonks it in contemporary, although the YA/NA debate is ongoing, but knights would suggest something like adventure, even if it’s not tipping over into fantasy. But then the knights themselves are actually run by MI5, so that kind of puts it in the same realm as other espionage stories, or perhaps a crime novel.

Where does it go? Pepper calls it ‘contemporary adventure’, and that’s the closest she can get to describing it. It’s effective enough, but when you’re trying to market a book, sometimes it’s useful to have a genre that’s, well, more traditional.

Genre serves a handful of purposes. It means your reader knows what they’re picking up, at least approximately. It means the bookstore and library know where on the shelves to put it. It means Amazon can list it on certain charts but not others. And when you’re pursuing the kind of publishing route that takes you via an agent, it’s something you need to be aware of when you’re querying.

Describing a book as a “YA urban fantasy” shows the agent that you’ve thought about your audience and you know where your novel fits into the market.

But it’s not always that easy.

I know someone (I know everyone, but this is a specific someone) who is working on a trilogy where arguably, each of the books is a different genre. They each have the characteristics of different categories, and don’t quite fit clearly into any of them. Even more complicated is the audience problem: while the first book could safely be described as YA, by the time the third book comes around we’re looking much more at a thriller with some serious adult content.

what more do you want

So what are you meant to do in that situation? It’s easy to think that it’s not working and give up on the books, or try and squash the life out of them to make them fit into a box, and occasionally it’s important to make changes to what you’re writing. Thinking about genre will ensure that you have a clear idea of the kind of story you’re writing, and you’ll probably write it better, so if you have no idea what you’re doing, then you may need to rethink.

But if you’ve got a genre but that genre doesn’t quite work, like a contemporary adventure or a three-book story arc that takes us on a journey through genres, I want to say to you: don’t give up.

It’s hard, in the writing business, to tread the line between marketing and commercial potential, and telling the story you want to tell. Occasionally yeah, you do have to make changes to something before it can sell. But that’s not what you should be thinking about from the very beginning.

You’re writing a book? Write it how you want to write it, the genre you want it to be, and worry about whether it’s marketable later. Maybe you’ll get to book five of your cross-genre series and realise that there’s no way in the world that a traditional publisher will ever pick it up because it’s ridiculous, but that’s okay. Do you have faith in that series? Then keep going. Keep working on it. In the end, you can always indie publish. That’s the benefit of self-publishing: you can take risks and write things that don’t fit into traditional boxes, because the overhead costs are so much lower that you don’t have much to lose.

When Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett wrote Good Omens, they wrote it purely for fun, with no idea if anybody would ever want to publish it because it was weird and potentially blasphemous and they had a great time working on it. More than twenty years later that book is still selling, still popular, and has just been adapted into a radio series.


So write without thinking about whether it’s too weird for publishing. Write without worrying about marketability. Write for your own entertainment, to tell the story that means something to you, and worry about that sort of thing at the end.

If everything fits neatly into a genre box, great. But don’t panic if it doesn’t, because not all stories can. Genre’s generally a fairly arbitrary descriptor of books, especially when it’s as broad as an audience category like “YA”. (Though the advantage of this is that you don’t have to worry quite so much about specific genres within that category.) It’s not the be-all and end-all of whether you’ve written a good book.

Go forth and smash down those genre boundaries.

I just typoed that as a ‘gender’ (not for the first time in this post). Smash those as well. Pepper and Nat will help you, if you ask them nicely. Or even if you don’t. They’re probably already doing it right now. Following in Carter’s footsteps and all that. Anyway, go write. It’s what you’re meant to be doing, isn’t it?

-- Iron Man

It's all in the fall: Writing Romance with Dr. Banner and the Hulk

As a scientist, I'm much more comfortable with logic than love, so when I drew the straw to talk romance as a genre, I tried to devise a working formula for writing a great love story. But this was the best I could do:

    initial attraction
   denial of attraction         +    complications  (internal and external)  +/- misunderstandings
                                              or miscommunication (comical                                                                                                                      or otherwise)

                                                   --> resolution of differences through mutual acceptance and                                                                         understanding
                                                   -->  acknowledgement of love
                                                   --> commitment to that love =
                                                                happily ever after

It was, as you can see, by both scientific and literary considerations, a failed experiment.

At least it didn't involve gamma rays.

So I looked instead to a great YA love story for the answer. In John Green's The Fault in our Stars. Hazel says she "fell in love"with Augustus "the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once."  Her words remind me that in the romance genre, it's the falling that counts for the reader. Every love story from Pride and Prejudice to Fangirl, after all, ends shortly with the couple's mutual acknowledgement of the love that's developed and their commitment to it. The narrative doesn't take the reader along for the mundane business of maintaining and sustaining that love once it's developed. That's because the pleasure in reading a romance lies in the reader's experiencing the pleasure of falling in love (vicariously). And as Hazel's line reminds us as writers, that experience has to happen slowly, over time.  The pleasure lies in the falling, not the landing, so you don't want to rush the reader through it.

As the Supremes warned us many years ago, you can't hurry love. Or a love story.

Yet many books - even popular ones - rush the romance that is supposed to be their offered pleasure. Maybe the writer already knows the characters and loves them and just wants to see them happy together so s/he makes that happen too quickly, but this cheats the reader out of much of the pleasure of reading a romance. We want to feel the characters fall in love - and we want to understand why they fall in love.  For me, instead of showing us how the characters fall, a "failed" romance novel simply announces to us that the characters are "in love." This kind of writerly mistake is so common it has a name - "instalove"- and it makes Hulk so angry I'm going to let him take over the post for a moment or risk him breaking up my laptop like a piece of melba toast:


Rant aside, my greener, meaner half has a good point: The Fault in Our Stars works because the love between Hazel and Augustus unfolds.

From word one, strong voice and characterization pull us in so that we feel we "know" Hazel when she meets Augustus. We agree with her that he's a little too full of himself and share her mistrust of his attraction to her, but, like her, we're drawn to his humor and charm, albeit warily. We feel her teetering on the precipice, ready to fall, when Augustus calls Hazel in torment over the abrupt non-ending of An Imperial Affliction. And we recognize that his appreciation of the book marks his genuine appreciation of Hazel, her thoughts, her feelings - and not just because it's a long and difficult read. Augustus' embracing of this book shows that he "gets" Hazel. With this, he earns the right to love her, in a sense, and the love she's about to return to him. She's ready to fall for him, and by the time she gets on that plane to Amsterdam, we've fallen right along with her. And her fall strikes us as "right" - the "all at once part" of her falling in love - because we've gotten to know the her and Augustus so well, in part through some of the wittiest yet most "real" dialogue in YA fiction. In TFIOS, the fall takes its time, and when it happens, the reader knows not just that Hazel and Augustus fall in love, but why they do. It happens "slowly" enough for the reader to feel it, too. We feel the "rightness" of their love.

That's one of the great things about love: when it happens, it feels right. It has to feel right to your reader, too. It has to be earned. And that can't be rushed.

So if you're writing a romance, you no doubt are a little in love with your characters and you want us to love them, too. And we will, if you let us fall in love with them (and their love) "slowly", so that the "all at once" satisfies.

Until next month    
Banner (and Hulk) out

The Year in Five Minutes: 2014 Wrap-Up

Hey, hey, hey!  The new year is upon us, as you may have noticed.  I don't know about you, but I partied pretty hard.  (I missed about ninety of those parties.  Don't judge.)  But how can a single night encompass an entire year of past awesomeness, plus the potential for all sorts of new heroics to come?  Short answer: it can't.

Not until we have our wrap-up post, that is.  I, Captain America, am here to wrap up not only last month, not only last year, but THE WORLD.  Okay, maybe not.  But we'll still have fun.

2014 IN REVIEW: January

The link above is to the archived posts.  You'll see me there (with another alter-ego, however, so don't be confused), as well as Thor, Hawkeye, and Iron Man.  They speak of plotting and pantsing, of sticking with a project to the end, and the everlasting question of why you write.  Motivation!  New Year's resolutions!  It looked like a fun month.


This month, we got a double helping of Asgard.  Loki posted about revising a plot and working on characters.  Thor wrote about the risks of writing and changing gears between projects.  Between those four posts, Iron Man, Hawkeye, and the Hulk (under another alter-ego) wrote about rewards, premises, and wordcount guides for different-sized works.  Wherever you are in a novel, you can find wisdom and inspiration there.


This was Iron Man's double month.  Just before Camp NaNoWriMo, he posted about planning a novel and how to be a good presence on the internet.  Thor and Loki tied for a close second, posting one and a half times each.  How do you post half a time?  Share it, of course.  Thor and Loki have email correspondence proving-- yes, proving-- that they can use computers.  They talk about social media and strengthen Iron Man's argument.  Thor also posted about world building cultures, and Loki about what readers want from a book.  Hulk and Hawkeye spoke about making a fantasy stand out, and making everything worth it.  A big month for everyone.


How about a contest?  Thor ran a flash fiction competition, chose the winner, and still managed to write a how-to post on waiting for the result of a query.  In fact, the entire month seemed to focus on queries.  Hulk gave a step-by-step process on writing queries, and Iron Man talked about procrastinating.  Which is, of course, 50% of any query, although it's kind of a secret.  You can do without.


Hulk smashed this month, if you'll pardon the pun.  Two posts came from his flying green fingers, one a poll on the most anticipated YA book release, and the other about commonly used words that might weigh you down.  Thor talks about creativity whiplash, flying from a creative high to a crushing low.  Iron Man weighs in on humor with examples from Hamlet, which automatically makes it awesome.


Once again, Iron Man rules.  Two amazing posts this month, one that still inspires me-- why writers should learn languages, and how to fail better every time.  Hulk pulls George Orwell in for a couple bits of wisdom, and Thor talks about steps to publication.  (First and foremost, read our blog.  Well... no.  But it's nice if you do.)


The link above is to July's wrap-up post, because Big News!  This was the month I rejoined the team, along with a new Hulk alter-ego, Black Widow, and Agent Coulson.  Thor became top poster for this month with his announcements, but also with his advice to take writing slowly.  The entire month, in honor of the year's second Camp NaNoWriMo, talked about writing a first draft.  Plotting vs. pantsing, struggling through or going too quickly, how to get unstuck, and balancing writing with life-- everyone had something to say.


This month was character month.  Types of characters!  Names and questionnaires!  Side characters and back story!  A lot of moral ambiguity!  Everyone posted.  Everyone was awesome.


Happy pre-writing month!  Incorporating mood and theme into a story, from Loki and Iron Man.  Genre and point of view, from Black Widow, Coulson, and I.  Pre-writing decisions and plotting in clusters, from Thor and Hulk.  The month was full.


NaNoWriMo fast approaches, and you can tell.  We talk about plotting, worldbuilding, plotting, pressure, plotting, and oh, did I mention plotting?  Everyone has a different method, and we talk about as many as we know.  Because we all know what next month is...


Have a pep talk.  Have another pep talk.  We want you to live, so read another pep talk.  This month was meant for all the pressure-beaten people participating in NaNoWriMo.  Keeping things practical, utilizing writing sprints, and making sure writer's block doesn't kill you-- that's our job.  You do yours and write words.


Ah, our newly departed month.  The topic?  Revision and recovery.  The posts?  Epic as ever.  We end the year with a bang.  Thor makes up a drinking game for NaNo-recovery.  I talk about the importance of reading as a cure-all for NaNo-related ills.  Dr. Banner takes a break from his green half, and encourages you to do the same before tackling revision.  Cheerful as ever, Tony Stark describes the process of pulling useful materials from the wreckage of your novel and beginning to make sense of them.  Coulson explains why and how to assemble a team for assessing your work.  Loki, the perfectionist, wants you to rule your scene and make it the best it can be.

Take a deep breath.  You just walked through an entire year in a matter of minutes-- if that isn't a superpower, it's still something to be proud of.  You're already beginning the new year with efficiency, writerly awesomeness, and time travel.  Congratulations.

This year is going to be amazing.  It begins with January (obviously), which is Genre month for us.  We'll break down genre distinctions, conventions, and how to slip between genres when necessary.  With the new year comes new awe-inspiring words, both from us and from you.  Especially from you, in fact.  Without you, none of this matters, so thank you.  We're in your debt.


P.S.  Thor and I participated in a short story challenge this New Year's Eve.  Check out his alter-ego's story here, and mine here.  Thanks again.